Single mother of five boys, Okanagan Woman makeover contest winner, Debbie Neff, spends the day getting camera ready for her glamorous photo shoot.
In the last issue of Okanagan Woman Magazine, readers were invited to enter our Spring contest by telling us why they deserved a makeover. Thank you to the dozens of women who shared their stories. You tugged at our heartstrings and confirmed what we already knew – that Okanagan Women are brilliant and resilient, humble and hard working. Ladies, you amaze us! While it is never easy to make a selection, especially with so many heartfelt entries, in the end, we chose single Mom, Debbie Neff’s story – for her positivity and her commitment to family, health and her future.
On January 6 Debbie Neff went home for a lunch break from her job cleaning houses and checked her messages. Nothing. Disappointed, she thought, “It’s OK. Someone else got it.” Moments later the phone rang. “I thought it must be a wrong number, but I answered it anyway. It was Suzy van Bakel, the publisher of Okanagan Woman, telling me I was chosen as the winner.”
Debbie remembers the feeling of shock, the blood draining from her face. “I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t win,” she says. “I told my story from the heart. I didn’t make it better or less, I didn’t want to dwell on the negative. But, I did say the kids are OK and now it’s time for me.”
As Debbie shares her story with the Okanagan Woman team, we are struck by her candor and warmth.
Now 57, Debbie spent her first five years in Vernon. The family moved to Merritt where she attended Diamond Vale Elementary and Merritt Secondary. Her mom died when Debbie was just 18, she left home and landed a job in Kamloops as receptionist at the YMCA. A stint in Edmonton, sewing back pockets on jeans at the Great Western Garment factory, ensued. Then back to Merritt for 5 years as a chambermaid. Next, after 6 months as a cleaner at Apex Ski Resort, Debbie decided to start her own cleaning business.
“I got married in 1990, had five boys in 10 years, and divorced in 2004,” she says. “Walker, the youngest was three when their father flew the coop, leaving me with minimal emotional and financial support. “I had no choice but to move on. I made a commitment to show my boys the way.”
She did, and then some. Walker, now 17, is on the honour roll at Mount Boucherie Secondary. Levi, 18, is studying Audio Engineering at Okanagan College, and Blaze, 20, is in his third year of Electrical Engineering at UBCO. Already out in the work force, Skylar, 24 works as an IT Tech for Interior Health in Kelowna while older brother Cotton, 27, is a Senior Account Manager at RBC in Penticton.
How did she do it? “I’m determined,” she says. “And it was a team effort. The boys worked delivering papers, then took turns carrying the Little Caesars shaker advertising board and later making pizzas. Tuition has been covered by bursaries from the Legion, as the boys’ father was in the Army Reserves, and student loans. Cotton, the eldest, spent some time working as a chef at Kelly O’Bryans.”
Still, it wasn’t easy. Debbie and the boys lived in the three-bedroom basement section of a Westbank fourplex apartment building. The boys had bunks in two of the bedrooms. “We had to go to the food bank all the time. Boys eat a lot,” she laughs, “We had no money but we were very close. They respect me.”
“There were lots of times when they drove me crazy. One time when I had had it with them I went down to the lake and had a good cry,” she says. “ I was gone quite a while.” When she got back, the lights were all out. The boys yelled surprise when she walked in. They had cleaned the house. “Come sit at the table,” they said, and served burnt hot dogs and buns with peanut butter. “Those were the best hot dogs I ever tasted,” she said smiling, “Those were the moments to remember.”
Debbie starts her new look at Kelowna’s upscale but very friendly Loyal Hair Therapy at their Harvey Avenue location. Owner Loyal Taylor takes community involvement seriously. “We do one event per month, collaborating with organizations like Canadian Mental Health and partnering with Sun FM in the I Am Me. Own It anti-bullying campaign.”
Dressed in a royal-blue T-shirt that enhances her striking blue eyes, Debbie looks a bit apprehensive in her new surroundings. Stylist Karisa Best’s gentle, respectful manner helps Debbie feel comfortable during their brief consultation. They have agreed on a warm honey brown tone for Debbie’s hair. Karisa is already working on it. “I wanted the colour to be in her comfort zone. I was glad when she decided to go darker,” says Karisa.
Over a sink near the back of the salon Karisa massages conditioner into Debbie’s hair. A look of serenity washes over Debbie’s face. She stretches back against the sink, hands gently folded in her lap. One hour later the beginning of the makeover transformation is evident. Karisa has cut, coloured, conditioned and styled Debbie’s now honey brown locks into beautiful smooth, silky curls. “It feels so much lighter, like a weight has been lifted,” says Debbie as we head across the street to Faces, Body + Soul in the Orchard Park Mall for the next stage of the makeover.
Owner Susanne Engel and Dermalogica expert Tarah Buchanan welcome Debbie like a long lost friend. Susanne, opened Faces in 2001. “Our community donations include working with Dry Grad and 100+ Women Who Care Kelowna,” she says.
Bonds were formed the previous day when Debbie was treated to a few hours of massage, facial and manicure from Tarah. Debbie settles eagerly into makeup artist Ashley Dallimore’s chair. “For foundation I’m using Dermalogica Ultr-calming toning mist and primer,” she explains. Eyebrow shaping complete, she applies a neutral beige-toned eye shadow with a bit of shine. Then the fun begins. With a tiny impish grin Debbie answers yes to glue on eyelash strips. “Is this really happening? Am I really here?” says Debbie.
“You look gorgeous,” says Ashley. “Oh my, I don’t think I’ve ever been told that before,” says Debbie. Ashley completes the look with a lip colour from Faces own line, Pink Glove, then twirls the chair to give Debbie her first glance in the mirror. “Who is that person?” she asks, sittingup straighter, confidence blossoming. “I can’t believe it’s me.”
She’s walking noticeably taller as she makes her way through the mall to the Triple Concept Laura, Laura Petites, Laura Plus store, where she’s greeted by manager Krista Pallos and senior stylist Kim Bergstrom. Trying on clothes is now especially gratifying for Debbie who since April 2014 has lost 80 pounds. “I decided I was going to start living a healthier life. Chips were my downfall. Now it’s veggies, green tea and lots of water. No more migraine headaches. I started by eating less, I worked out on a treadmill, I parked long distances from stores on purpose and I do get exercise in my cleaning job,” she says. “Seeing results and receiving compliments keep me motivated. At some points, you feel hopeless, then people notice and it makes you want to do more.”
Kim puts her amazing talent to work, picking out just the right pieces to adorn Debbie’s body type and colouring. After deliberating over a wonderful array of garments, Debbie models two outfits. The first ensemble combines a black and turquoise chiffon floral blouse with built in camisole and black pants. Krista immediately adds a gold necklace and cuff, but then switches to an even better choice of a long sliver leaf necklace. The second ensemble is a slimming black sleeveless dress with lace bodice, satin sash and chiffon full skirt. Kim gracefully adds a lace bolero to complement the look. Both outfits look incredible.... but Kim goes one step further and adds an edgy black leather-look jacket from Laura Plus, amazing! But no outfit is complete without footwear, Debbie selects a fabulous pair of leather ankle boots from Hollywood shoes, a perfect choice! “I’ve never had boots like this before,” she says, staring down at her feet. “They are so comfortable, so so and so beautiful.”
Krista and Kim continue to work on accessorizing the outfits, this time with a very striking tri-toned drop necklace and three tiered jewel earrings from their sister store, the slightly more trendy and contemporary, Melanie Lyne.
“I don’t even feel like myself,” says Debbie, smiling into the full-length mirror. “It’s such a good feeling.” At that, Kim gets a bit weepy at witnessing the final transformation. “It’s not just about selling clothes,” she says. “It’s a huge deal. She doesn’t look like the same person we met yesterday.” at this point, we are all tearing up!
Final decision made, Debbie chooses the gorgeous black dress and lacy bolero. She grabs the leather jacket, puts her hands in the pockets and smiles confidently. “It’s my time to rebel against the kids,” she laughs. “I’m rockin’ this one. It’s pretty cool.”
Last stop, The Body Shop, where manager Tammy Peterson presents Debbie with a gorgeous gift basket of foot and body care products and candles. “Everything she needs to pamper herself,” says Tammy. “One of our store’s core values is activating self esteem.”
It’s been a glorious day for everyone. For Debbie, it’s transformational. “I used to go out after work in my 20s, with makeup, hair done, then five kids happened. Now, it’s my time. I can do this. This is my year of change.” You go, girl!
DEBBIE’S GOALS FOR 2016
1. To look good and feel healthy by New Years 2016.
2. Take some courses.
3. Change my profession to something in healthcare, working with people.Change my profession to something in healthcare, working with people.
4. Find a partner, not just a boyfriend, a keeper.
“Eight years ago I cleaned house for Hazel Nielson who was raising five kids on her own after her husband was killed working on the Alaska Highway. I listened to her stories. If she can do this, I can do this,” I thought. “She encouraged me.”
A special thank you to Alisha Khan Photography for capturing this special day